In winter, the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar suffers some of the highest levels of air pollution in the world. Solving this problem will take a combination of short- and long-term solutions, starting with providing citizens with the information they need to protect themselves from dangerous dirty air.
First, it is important to increase public awareness on air pollution with regular and accurate information on the severity of air pollution, its associated health impacts, and strategies to mitigate the effects of pollution. Good examples are which masks to buy, when to run errands, and precautions for children and the elderly.
The campaign should also equip people with information on practical and economically viable alternatives to raw coal and energy efficiency targets; highlight the health, cost and energy equivalency benefits on raw coal alternatives; and showcase local innovations to encourage people to change their energy consumption habits and opt for more energy-efficient household cooking and heating options.
This could be done through short video tutorials for distribution on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, district billboards; and posters on khoroo (subdivisions) government offices, bus stops, hospitals, schools, police stations, water kiosks and children’s playgrounds. Local TV channels, bus screens, cinemas, and radio could carry advertisements. Local kheseg leaders could amplify the messages.
Regular monitoring of indoor air pollution in key public spaces such as hospitals and schools should also be increased and communicated to people, along with information on the risks of indoor air pollution. Citizens also need to learn the benefits of proper insulation and of cleaner fuels for heating (and transport, a secondary source of pollution which becomes prominent in summer time).
Second, it’s important to gain a better understanding of the pollution problem, its sources, and its exact extent in Ulaanbaatar.
The aging air quality monitoring networks managed by the municipality and the environment ministry need a major overhaul. They also must be expanded to all the informal ger settlement areas, where coverage is still fragmented. Finally, they should be complemented by more accurate analytical tools to pinpoint the sources of air pollution, so that more targeted solutions can be tailored.
These are typical elements of a good air quality monitoring suite, which can aid effective air quality management and feed public awareness campaigns more accurately.
Third, burning cleaner coal for heating in the ger areas is the only available short-term solution for immediate relief from suffocating levels of pollution and ger residents should be provided with such fuel now. Burning raw coal for heating there is the main cause of the extremely high levels of pollution in Ulaanbaatar.
Switching to a coal that has been washed or processed and eventually cleaned is doable, and could reduce carbon emissions by 70%.
The government should prioritize the provision of cleaner coal to poorest families first, and for free. For all others, it will probably be necessary to provide cleaner coal at the same price of raw coal, until people can appreciate the reduction in pollution.
Hence, initially the government will have to subsidize to entice the private sector to start supplying cost-equivalent cleaner heating coal until a sustainable production scheme is “ignited” – and can then continue without government assistance (until the long-term solutions are completed).
This switch to cleaner coal can only work if there is genuine cooperation and willingness to change among all parties involved: the financiers, the producers, the suppliers, the distributors. The sooner the better, as winter is upon us already.
Efforts should start immediately. Pollution loads exceeding on average 40 times the recommended air quality standard are already causing serious damage to people and the economy. A recent UNICEF study shows a 350% rise in fetal deaths in winter compared to summer.
Through its impact on health, often from the birth, air pollution hampers labor productivity and income opportunities through illness, disability, and premature death. The problem and its economic costs can only get worse if we don’t act now.
In the long term, sustainable solutions to the air pollution problem require a redevelopment of urban areas. People need access to good and affordable quality shelter and better environmental facilities.
Urban redevelopment has to be planned hand-in-hand with energy solutions for the ger areas, including connecting these areas to reliable and clean energy and heating sources. Cleaner combined heat and power plants, along with distributed renewable energy systems such as geothermal with solar thermal and storage solutions, should be tested and introduced in areas where extending the district heating system is uneconomical.
Finally, the Mongolian people need better economic opportunities in the countryside, which would slow down migration to the capital city. A national development strategy can optimize the use of the vast natural resources of the country and its strategic regional position, while balancing economic development across provincial centers and easing the burden on Ulaanbaatar’s ailing infrastructure.
Enabling better livelihoods throughout Mongolia also means preventing air pollution problems similar to those of the capital in growing provincial centers.
All would stand to benefit from a clever national urban strategy, including the beautiful Mongolian skies. This winter will be a test for all.